Did Tax Avoidance Contribute to the D.C. Metro Accident?


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Did tax avoidance schemes contribute to the tragic subway crash in the nation's capitol on June 22? For us to know for sure, the District's transit agency should make public the details of leasing agreements it entered into purely to facilitate tax avoidance.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA or "Metro") has, like many other transit agencies, engaged in so-called sale-in, lease-out (SILO) deals with financial institutions that don't actually have any real substance and do not change anyone's behavior -- except perhaps that Metro was obligated to keep train cars in service longer than was advisable.

Here's how SILOs work. When a company buys assets like equipment, it takes depreciation deductions over a period of years to reduce its taxable income. Cities and transit agencies are not subject to federal income tax, so they can't use the deductions. A SILO basically allows transit agencies to sell the benefits of those deductions, which they cannot use anyway, to a private investor. A city or transit agency sells assets such as train cars to a private investor (usually a bank). The sale gives the city immediate cash for other investments. The bank, which now "owns" the train cars and can take depreciation deductions, "leases" the train cars back to the city. So the investor gets depreciation deductions on the equipment and deductions for interest, if it borrowed money to make the purchase. The city gets the cash it was paid for the train cars, which exceeds the lease payments it must make.

But notice that the deal has no economic substance whatsoever. The train cars obviously never are possessed by the bank, which is in no way involved in operating mass transit systems. Both the transit agency and the bank are in the exact same position as they were before the deal, except they've made some money by manipulating the tax code in a way that Congress obviously never intended, at a cost to U.S. taxpayers. In 2004 alone, SILO deals were estimated to cost the Treasury $4.4 billion.

Metro has $889.1 million of these deals in place. In a statement that the agency has recently backed away from, Metro told federal inspectors in 2006 that it could not retire its 1000 Series Rohr railcars (which are suspected of being a significant contributor to the deaths and injuries) because "tax-advantaged leases" required that the cars be kept in service "at least until the end of 2014. The National Transportation Safety Board had previously recommended that the 1000 series cars be retired or retrofitted, after its investigation of a 2004 crash.

Federal transit officials encouraged these deals as a way to provide much-needed funds to transit agencies. But the Treasury Department fought them and, beginning in 2004, denied depreciation deductions for SILO deals.

Sarah Lawsky, a law professor at George Washington University, posted one of the many SILO agreements the Metro has entered. This agreement is available to the public because of a court settlement, but the other agreements are not. What details are in the other agreements is unclear, but Metro has said that the agreements did not bar it from replacing the cars and were not a factor.

But there's only one way we can know for sure. Metro should make the rest of the agreements public.

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